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South Korea labor strike turns violent

December 28, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's growing labor strike turned violent for the first time Saturday as police used tear gas to disperse some 5,000 marchers protesting a new labor law.

The demonstrators fought back by throwing rocks as they faced off against 3,000 riot police. There were no reports of injuries, but 12 people were arrested. The demonstration began peacefully with protesters chanting anti-government slogans.

To the steady beat of gongs and drums, they denounced the country's president: "Kim Young-sam betrayed us!" and "Down with Kim Young-sam!"

Many waved huge, brightly colored union banners through the dense fog of tear gas.

Strike expands to other sectors

Most of the marchers were among the 373,000 workers participating in the country's largest organized labor strike, which has idled hundreds of car, shipbuilding and other export plants for three days. Hospital workers and students have joined the protest to show solidarity.

The workers are protesting a labor law unilaterally passed by the ruling party on Thursday, which allows companies to lay off large groups of employees, something unheard of in South Korea. Many South Korean workers assume that once they enter a company they have a job for life. But businesses say they cannot compete in world markets without the flexibility to restructure and lay off workers.

Ruling party officials tried to persuade the striking workers that the law was in their best interest.

"This is all a big misunderstanding," said New Korea Party chairman Lee Hong-koo. "We struggled to write a law that would protect workers' rights and gain management flexibility for competitiveness."

Strikes take heavy economic toll

The expanding strike that began Thursday was expected to continue through the end of this year at a cost of more than $1 billion in lost production, according the government, which has declared all the strikes illegal and has warned of stern countermeasures.

South Korea is the world's sixth-largest automaker and handles one-third of the world's shipbuilding orders.

The South Korean stock market plunged to its lowest level in three years Friday as investors worried that the strike would hurt the country's export-led economy.

CNN's Lim Yon-suk and Reuters contributed to this report.

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